The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 19, 2018
In the name of God, Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
About fifteen years ago I went on the Atkins diet--a low carbohydrate diet that was popular in the 2000’s. One of the features of the diet, of course, is that you can’t eat bread. Or pasta. Or anything with sugar. But you can eat lots of meat and green vegetables. And the more fat the better. I ate lots of bacon while I was on the Atkins diet. But bread was elusive. I was hungry for it. I eyed the basket of dinner rolls with envy. Never before had I been so hungry for bread.
A few years ago my doctor remarked that my cholesterol was slightly elevated, and so I went to a nutritionist in New York and worked out a low-cholesterol diet. I could eat most anything I wanted to as long as it was low in fat. I could even have a little bread. Just no butter. And so I lost a little bit of weight. But on this low cholesterol diet my cholesterol went up by ten points. I stopped seeing the nutritionist.
I like food. I enjoy cooking it, and I enjoy eating it--preferably with other people who like food, too. I’ve always had enough food--and I suspect you have, as well.
I’ve never known what it is to be truly hungry, and I’m grateful for that. Sure, sometimes I get a little peckish and eager for my next meal, or sometimes I really want a snack--but I’ve never felt the sort of hunger that leads to despair. I’ve always known where my next meal would come from.
A friend of mine who loves New Haven and has known the social landscape here for most of her life says that it’s almost impossible to go hungry in New Haven. There are so many places to get a meal--the Community Soup Kitchen being one of the largest--that starvation is not the issue here. Housing, healthcare, food insecurity--lots of other issues plague our city, but starvation is not one. I think she’s probably right.
But there is a hunger here in New Haven. Part of our city is crying out in hunger, longing for something that’s unfulfilled.
We saw the beast of hunger raise its head this past week when the national media reported on this week’s rash of overdoses in the Elm City. Over one hundred overdoses in a three day period. A friend who works on the Green described it as crazy. Friends from all over the country phoned or messaged to express their concern. Emergency responders were running as fast as they could between the Green and Yale New Haven Hospital, and staff from Cornell Scott Hill Health were triaging on the Green itself.
I was sad to hear the statistics, but I was more saddened to realize that many of the people that had overdosed and were taken to treatment had multiple instances of overdosing. Apparently a feature of K2, the synthetic drug involved in this past week’s overdoses, is that it’s fast acting and short lived. So after recovering from an overdose, people often use again.
That may explain why, according to the New Haven Police Department, 47 people were treated for overdoses, but there were about 120 separate ambulance calls during the epidemic. 
It’s easy to wall off the suffering that this latest rash of overdoses represents. To contain it to a presupposed ideal of “those people.” It’s “the homeless” that are overdosing. It’s “those people on the Green,” we might say. But Alison Cunningham, CEO of Columbus House, points out that the problem is much more nuanced than that. She relates that the Green has become a destination for people who are not experiencing homelessness but are seeking to buy or sell drugs--and how many of Columbus House’s clients who do live on the Green have been just as traumatized and unsettled by this occurrence as everyone else in New Haven and in the country.
Duo Dickinson has written in the Register about the nature of the Green itself--how the Green in New England towns was a place for life, for survival--the place that crops were grown, that bodies were buried, that God was praised in meetinghouses and churches.
But in the 19th Century, Duo says, Greens became “portals to the time of their creators, rather than to the Creator”--places reminiscent of a history rather than working space offered up to God. And this shift parallels, Duo says, a declination from our focus on faith in God to faith in ourselves--a faith that seems to have gone awry.
Part of our national foundational story, the idea of religious freedom, shifted to a focus on personal freedom. And, Duo says, “that freedom made commerce, education and culture explode over 300 years — most often pirouetting around the hundreds of Greens at the center of everything. Now, that freedom has morphed into a tolerance for self-destruction that screams at us from the New Haven Green this week… If we are truly outraged at the human tragedy and hopelessness of overdosing on toxic drugs, the tragedy happened long before the OD-ing happened. Somehow faith in a future was lost.”
What is it that people are hungry for that they’re willing to risk death, go to hospital, and then risk death again? What is this great hunger that’s seizing hold of people? That’s seizing our city?
Is it this great loss of hope in the future? A chronic despair?
The texts from Proverbs, one of the Hebrew wisdom texts, give us images of a banquet--of a feast. The portion we read today is the banquet of Wisdom personified:
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’ (Proverbs 9:1-6)
But we don’t hear the passage from the end of this chapter of Proverbs, the banquet of Foolishness personified:
The foolish woman is loud;
she is ignorant and knows nothing.
She sits at the door of her house,
on a seat at the high places of the town,
calling to those who pass by,
who are going straight on their way,
‘You who are simple, turn in here!’
And to those without sense she says,
‘Stolen water is sweet,
and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.’
But they do not know that the dead are there,
that her guests are in the depths of Sheol. (13-18)
It would be easy to corral, to contain, the devastating behavior of addiction or even escapism to a group that we can regard as other--as not ourselves. But if we’re honest, as Duo points out, it’s not a problem of a particular group but of our whole society. We’ve turned from love of God and one another to a love of self that is killing us. And perhaps turned is the wrong word, because hasn’t it been like this from the very beginning?
Addiction, substance abuse, deleterious escapism affects and infects every place and every culture within creation.
The hunger to escape the difficulties of life, the pain of existence, the damage done to us by the wickedness of others, by systemic evils, or by our own poor choices--that hunger is deep and ravenous. “Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant, but they do not know that the dead are there…in the depths of Sheol.”
The gospel today points out that Jesus is the Bread of Life. “The one who eats this bread will live forever,” Saint John’s gospel says (6:58). Isn’t this the thing that people are really hungry for? Don’t they need the bread of life? The very presence of Jesus? Why won’t they just come to church? Whoever eats this bread will live forever!
I once volunteered with a homeless shelter, a rescue mission, that had been founded out of the 19th Century evangelical movement. It sought to feed folks, to get them off the bottle--this mission was very focused on recovery--and to lead them to a faith in Jesus Christ.
Now, all of those things were worthy activities. But the particular way the mission went about talking about faith in Jesus was problematic for me; it was largely about belief and assent, about moral behavior and purity codes, and it didn’t leave much room for difference. Their Christian counselors were unable to embrace glbt and trans folks as created in the image of God, and so I eventually stopped working with this particular agency.
They did good work. But they couldn’t embrace all of God’s children. And that worried me, and so I left.
I suspect that, at some level, we are all afraid of telling people they need Jesus -- because it sounds like we’re asking them to sign up to some program, some belief system, that tells folks they’re wrong, that draws lines, that says who’s in and who’s out. A system that might not include us, or our friends, or our uncle Bob, or whatever. That makes us nervous.
But the truth is that everyone is included in the love of Jesus. In the love of Jesus, the person overdosing is just as valuable to God as the EMT attending to her. In the love of Jesus, the homeless or unemployed person, the hungry and the vulnerable, is just as valuable as the person in political or economic power. In the love of Jesus, everyone is loved.
Earlier in the spring, our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, asked a question in his homily at the Royal Wedding that rang across the world: “Imagine a world where love is the way.” What would it look like if the world were ruled according to the principles of the love of God? What if we made all our decisions through the lens of the good news of the love of God in Christ?
The New England settlers might have thought were aiming for something like that, but Eden has fallen, the Greens have become wastelands, the metaphors could go on. As Dickinson says, “Greens do not create behavior; they reflect it.”
So what would it look like to live differently?
In the love of Jesus, housing could be more available. Drug treatment and supportive therapies rather than punitive jail sentences might change lives. All of those things would be wonderful.
But what about people who are desperate, who have lost hope? Why won’t they just come to church and hear that Jesus loves them?
It’s not as simple as all that, is it. We can’t institutionally tell a truth that, at its core, is relational. We have to tell it in relationship. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” This is a relational proposition--we must abide in Jesus Christ in order to share Jesus Christ with the world. To tell the love of Jesus, we have to be in relationship with one another--with the city, with people on the Green, with people in despair.
That’s why we’re engaging in this Living Local, Joining God project--to get to know our neighborhoods. To walk the streets and ask the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Because in relationship we can share the love of God in Christ with one another--through the gift of the Holy Spirit--in authentic, real ways. Not a proposition to be believed, or a concept to assent to to get a hot meal and a bed for the night--but a truth told in love and shown in deed and action.
Jesus is the bread of life. His love can fill the aching hearts of our cities, of people in despair.
That’s why we start at this altar--receiving the real presence of our Lord in the sacrament of Holy Communion--his Body and Blood--because we know that Jesus is here, here in this place, here in the streets of New Haven, here on the Green.
And because we know it, because we’ve received this real presence of Christ, we can share it.
I am the living bread which came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever.
If you know Duo Dickinson, you know that his column didn’t end on a note of despair. On the contrary, he believes that the presence of the Church on the Green--the visible sign of the Body of Christ in the world--is a place of hope even in the midst of fear and despair. He invited all of New Haven to come to church.
Let us do likewise. May we receive at this altar the presence of Christ--and may we go out into the streets of New Haven and show people Jesus.
+ + +
 Brian Zahn, “Police: 3rd person arrested in K2 overdose crisis,” New Haven Register, Friday, August 17, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/Police-3rd-person-arrested-in-K2-overdose-crisis-13163468.php. NB--A parishioner notes that “overdose” is the wrong word. “Poisoning” is the better word, she says, because it highlights the activity of the dealer rather than the victim. I share her comments here and am grateful for them.
 Jessica Lerner, “More ODs on Green today, more than 80 so far,” New Haven Register, Thursday, August 16, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/New-Haven-police-Rash-of-synthetic-cannabinoid-13160491.php.
 Lerner, “Emergency crews, volunteers try to make sense of mass ODs,” New Haven Register, Saturday, August 18, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/news/article/Emergency-crews-volunteers-try-to-make-sense-of-13165811.php.
 Alison Cunningham, newsletter from Columbus House, n.d. (circa August 16, 2018), accessed online at http://myemail.constantcontact.com/Alison-Cunningham--CEO--on-Overdoes-Crisis.html?soid=1110058879869&aid=sAEqbEzMFOI.
 Duo Dickinson, “Tragedy on the New Haven Green,” New Haven Register, Thursday, August 16, 2018, accessed online at https://www.nhregister.com/opinion/article/Duo-Dickinson-Tragedy-on-the-New-Haven-Green-13161639.php.